Rebuilding Paradise


Paradise lost.

(2020) Documentary (National GeographicWoody Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Zach Boston, Brendan Burke, Justin Cox, Mike Ramsey, Ken Pinlok, Alejandro Saise, Kayla Cox, James Gallagher, Phil John, Mike Zucolillo, Melissa Schuster, Tammy Hillis, Zeke Lunder, Calli Jane DeAnda, Aaron Johnson, Carly Ingersoll, Tenille Gates. Directed by Ron Howard

 

We have become inured to disaster. Each one seems to be greeted with numb compassion; thoughts and prayers, and all that. We feel for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We feel for the victims of the tornados that swept through Alabama. We feel for the victims of the explosion in Beirut which happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this. But we also feel numb, as if it’s just one more thing in the load of regret that we carry around with us like a backpack full of bricks.

Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is surely aware of this. As we cope with a deadly virus that has cost 160,000 lives (and rising), protests (sometimes violent) over racial injustice, an increasingly divided country that can’t even agree on whether we should wear masks during a pandemic, it feels like we have lost our ability to feel compassion or horror. All we feel is nothing.

This is a documentary that aims to change that. The first ten minutes are maybe the most terrifying ten minutes you’ll experience this year. We see the footage of the 2018 Camp Fire, which on November 8, 2018, fanned by Santa Ana winds, fueled by years of drought and years of a lack of forest clearing, went from being a small fire to travelling nine miles in a matter of hours, roaring through the town of Paradise, California like a pyroclastic cloud, leveling the town of 26,000 in a matter of hours and leaving 86 dead – the deadliest wildfire in the history of the California.

But what happens then? Howard isn’t interested so much in the disaster itself but in the aftermath. He follows several residents of Paradise – police officer Matt Gates, school board member Michelle John, and former mayor Woody Culleton (and the self-admitted former town drunk) – as they cope with the trauma, the loss of life, the loss of property, the feeling of rootlessness. Everything they knew and loved was gone. Of course, they want to rebuild.

But the nagging question is, should they? The conditions that created the Camp Fire aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and with climate change growing more and more of an issue, there is a very real chance that if they rebuild the town, it could burn once again. While the sparks that started the fire came from the nearly century-old equipment of Pacific Gas and Electric, a town meeting in which Aaron Johnson, an executive for the power company, maintains that while PG&E intends to “do right” by the town, it will take a minimum of five years to convert the power lines to underground lines. With the rains that normally soak the woods of the town, located about 85 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County, not arriving until after Thanksgiving (after previously arriving before Halloween), it’s a very scary situation for those who call Paradise home.

One of the things the documentary does well is show how interdependent a town is. Michelle John tells us that if the kids all move away, there’s no point in reopening the schools; if the schools don’t open, there’s no reason for people to stay. It’s a Catch-22 that also exists for businesses and services as well.

The unassailable thing that we can’t get away from is that home is home; there’s something about a place that gets under our skin, that gives us a sense of belonging. This is particularly true of small towns, although big cities can have this as well. There are places where we don’t just want to live there; we want to die there too.

=Dealing with the bureaucracy that is FEMA is almost as traumatic as the fire itself. Getting the funds and permits to get homes rebuilt requires the residents to jump through hoops. Many of them can’t afford to move somewhere else even if they wanted to – and some really don’t want to, whether it’s due to an attachment to the life they once lived there, or because the place calls to them.

The three main subjects – John, Gates and Culleton – are all interesting. Gates is the kind of model police officer that give police forces a good name; he is dedicated to his community and heroic in evacuating his town, even as he notices his own home is burning. John works tirelessly for the kids that she serves, trying not only to get kids placed in area schools, but also to clear the area around the football field at the high school so that the senior class can hold their graduation ceremony. Culleton is the straight-shooter, who at 74 decides that relocation is out of the question; “Where the hell am I going to go?” he says crossly, when discussing the matter.

The movie is inspirational, and there are some moments – such as one where a tough man is reduced to tears when the rebuilding of his home begins. Family members discuss the last moments of loved ones who died in the fire, and a loving husband tells his wife to make sure she takes care of herself in her zeal to get things back to normal for her town.

The spirit of these townspeople is indominable; you can’t help but admire they’re strength. Many of the town’s residents will never return. Bringing the town back to what it was before is the work not of months and not even years but decades. Some critics sniped that the film doesn’t truly examine whether Paradise should be rebuilt but to be honest, who is anyone to tell a person where they should live? People live in tornado alley, on the coast where hurricanes land, in earthquake zones, near volcanos, and near rivers that flood. There are few places on the planet that are exempt from natural disasters. It’s what we do after them that define us as people.

REASONS TO SEE: Packs an emotional wallop. Uplifting in the truest sense of the word. The footage of the fire and the aftermath are breathtaking and sobering. Puts the people at the center of the story. Illustrates how interdependent a community is.
REASONS TO AVOID: In the stressful environment we live in currently, some might find it too much.
FAMILY VALUES: The footage of people escaping the fire may be too intense for the impressionable; there is also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The year following the fire, the Paradise High School Bobcats football team went undefeated; virtually the entire town that remains would attend their home games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Marley

In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

New Releases for the Week of December 11, 2015


In the Heart of the SeaIN THE HEART OF THE SEA

(Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Benjamin Walker, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland. Directed by Ron Howard

Many believe that the greatest novel ever written was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What most people don’t realize is that the novel was based on an actual event that occurred aboard the Essex, a New England whaling ship, in 1820. Their incredible story, not only including their encounter with a vengeful whale, but the aftermath in which those that didn’t perish in the attack were forced to do the unspeakable in order to survive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence and thematic material)

Phoenix

(Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter. With the Second World War over, a concentration camp survivor, hideously disfigured in the last days of the war, has her face surgically reconstructed but is not quite the same as before. She searches for her husband, only to find he may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place. When she does find him, he doesn’t recognize her – but involves her in a scheme to get the inheritance from the wife he thinks is dead. This played last month at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival and proved to be so popular that the Enzian added a week-long engagement. You can read my review of it here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

No No: A Dockumentary


Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

(2014) Documentary (Arts + Labor) Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Ron Howard, Bruce Kison, Mudcat Grant, Dave Cash, Al Oliver. Directed by Jeff Radice

Florida Film Festival 2014

As someone who lived through the 70s, I can tell you that I never thought them particularly turbulent or interesting. Many point to the 60s as being a far more fascinating decade but the 70s had its share of difficult times. Looking back through the eyes of someone who was in his prime then and turned out to be a much more important influence than you could imagine, I can see that the 70s were far from boring.

Dock Ellis is probably not that well-known outside of baseball fans and knowledgeable baseball fans at that. He pitched his last game in 1979 and his glory years were from 1970-76, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates but also with the New York Yankees (he also pitched for the New York Mets, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers).

During his time in  the game, Ellis was an impressive figure. Baseball is full of characters who march to their own drummer but Ellis was one of a kind. He was kind of a Superfly with a great slider. Outside the stadium he was the paragon of style and fashion; inside he was a dogged competitor. Both on and off the field he spoke out against what he thought was wrong. He was a powerful individualist.

Unfortunately powerful individualists in the 70s were attracted to recreational drug use. Ellis famously pitched his no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Now, while the film doesn’t really cover this, it should be said in the interest of full disclosure that there are some who dispute this, including the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press, Bill Christine, who was at the game and knew the team well. Corroborating evidence has been hard to find but in fairness, neither has any information disproving the story. What is not in dispute is that drug abuse was rampant in the major leagues at the time.

The main offender and Ellis’  usual drug of choice was dexomyl, an amphetamine commonly known as greenies is the locker room. Use of the drug was widespread in Major League Baseball and while the MLB continues to have drug issues (mainly with steroids), recreational drug use is apparently not nearly as common in the majors as it was back then.

Ellis was also known for being a proponent for players’ rights, particularly those of African-American descent. He was in the line-up when the Pirates dressed an entirely non-white team, the first time in Major League Baseball history that had been achieved. He was known to argue with management when he felt he was in the right, sometimes stridently.

However, his drug abuse and sometimes distracting behavior undoubtedly shortened his major league career. He would eventually get straight and after retiring from the game became a counselor to major league players and helped many of them get rehabilitated. When he died in 2008 from complications from liver disease, he was far too young but had left an indelible mark.

The documentary about Ellis is clearly a labor of love. First-time feature filmmaker Radice is based in Austin and has been working on this since reading Ellis’ biography ten years ago. Like many independent documentaries, it has been filmed in bits and pieces as the filmmakers could afford to go out and get interviews in Pittsburgh (where they talked to many of Dock’s old teammates) and Los Angeles (where Ellis grew up and where many of his family and friends still reside).

Like many independent documentaries, there is also a tendency towards talking heads. The filmmakers interviewed more than 50 people for the film and while that adds a lot to the mix, it’s just too many. Still, I can understand Radice’s dilemma; all of the interviews are pretty interesting and give a good deal of insight into Ellis.

The drug use is certainly a big part of Ellis’ life but that’s not all he was and the movie does a good job of portraying who he is as a person beyond the more sensational stuff. Sometimes the portrait is humorous, sometimes frightening (one of Ellis’ four wives did leave because Ellis, no longer himself, was menacing her physically) and often touching. Baseball wasn’t big enough to contain a larger-than-life person like Ellis by itself. In essence, this is a documentary about a person, not a drug abuse documentary nor a baseball movie although again, both play major parts in who Dock Ellis was.

Unfortunately, Ellis passed away before the filmmakers could interview the man himself but one of the movie’s highlights is an archival interview when Ellis was reading a letter from the great Jackie Robinson commending him on his activism and urging him to continue. The tough pitcher, one of the most competitive in the game and one of the most unique individuals to ever play, breaks down into tears. Dock Ellis got it, and the filmmakers do as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights. Ellis is an engaging character.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language, drug content and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to self-financing his debut effort, Radice employed a volunteer advisory board to help him get through rough patches. The board included former major league pitcher Scipio Spinks, photographer and Ellis family friend Glen E. Friedman, documentary director Keith Maitland and SXSW/Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black. No, not that one; that one is spelled Lewis.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Congo

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Edge of Tomorrow

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…

New Releases for the Week of September 27, 2013


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Cody Cameron and Chris Pearn

Flint Lockwood returns to Swallow Falls to find that his machine which converted rain into food has begun to evolve. Now the food is alive and in short order will be breaking out and making its way to the mainland. Flint and his crew of intrepid explorers must shut down the machine for good or the world will face an apopcornlypse of epic proporridgetions.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor)

Baggage Claim

(Fox Searchlight) Paula Patton, Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe.  A beautiful flight attendant is less than thrilled at the prospect of her younger sister’s wedding. Competitive to a fault, she determines that she is going to be engaged by the wedding date 30 days away and she’ll use all her connections to land Mr. Right.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some language)

Don Jon

(Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza. Jon has the good life Southie style; he’s got a great ride, a wicked cool pad, all the women he can handle, a family that would die for him and buddies that would kill for him. He’s also got a computer where he can watch porn night and day. Who could want anything more? Then when he meets the right girl, he discovers that there’s one part of his equation that she can’t tolerate.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language) 

Enough Said

(Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette. Dreading her daughter’s impending departure for college, a single mom develops a romance with a sweet and charming single dad likewise facing an empty nest. At the same time, a friendship with one of her clients grows and as it does, her friend constantly rags about her ex-husband to the point where it begins to affect her new romantic relationship until she discovers the truth about her friend’s ex.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, comic violence, language and partial nudity)

In a World

(Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed, Geena Davis. A young woman working as a vocal coach secretly yearns to follow in her father’s footstep and become the best voice-over actor in Hollywood. When a huge break comes her way unexpectedly, she runs smack into a wall of sexism, egotism, pride and dysfunction.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Metallica: Through the Never

(Picturehouse) Dane DeHaan, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett. As Metallica, perhaps the most respected and beloved metal band on Earth are performing one of their epic concerts, a roadie is sent on a quest to retrieve an object that the band desperately needs for their show. As he makes his way through the city, he discovers that the landscape has become a surreal reflection of the band’s music.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D (opening in Standard format October 4)

Genre: Concert Film/Fantasy

Rating: R (for some violent content and language)

Rush

(Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara. The rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s was legendary, one which is still talked about by racing fans even today. But beyond the public perception was a private story that few other than those who knew the two men ever knew – until now. Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is at the helm for this high octane drama.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Biographical Sports Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use)

The Dilemma


The Dilemma

Jennifer Connelly is happy she isn't getting blamed for this mess.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah, Amy Morton, Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy van Swearingen, Troy West. Directed by Ron Howard

The last place anyone wants to be in is in the middle of a friend’s marital issues, particularly if their friend is unaware of those issues. These things can not only affect your relationship with your friend, but your other relationships as well.

Ronnie Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are partners in a small Chicago engine design firm – Valentine is the sizzle and Brannen is the steak – but more than that, they’ve been best friends since college. Nick is married to Geneva (Ryder), who was friends with both of them back in the old school days. Their business and personal relationship works pretty well; Brannen is the engineer, the brilliant designer that is their chief asset. Valentine is the glib salesman, the man who makes the business run. In the way of old friends, they are comfortable with each other, knowing at all times how the other is going to react.

Ronnie, who has never really found the right girl, may have finally found one in Beth (Connelly). She is patient having put up with a gambling problem that Ronnie apparently has kicked over the past two years. However, he has balked at actually committing up to now. Nick and Geneva urge Ronnie to pop the question – a girl like Beth, gorgeous, sexy and smart (not to mention a top chef) – won’t wait around forever.

Ronnie and Nick are down to the bone on their business; they need a big deal or they’ll both go under, having mortgaged everything to keep the company afloat. However, help looks like it’s on the horizon – a meeting with a Chrysler VP (Ross) about a fuel-efficient motor with the sound and power of a V8 muscle car motor gets a tentative go-ahead…provided they can make it work. They are left to the tender mercies of a maverick executive (Latifah) who tries very hard to be one of the boys.

There’s plenty of pressure on Nick as the engineer and he has the ulcers to show for it. However, his little talk with Ronnie has prompted him to propose to Beth – and he has gone to the local arboretum to find the perfect spot to propose. While there, Ronnie spies Geneva with a strapping, tattooed young man – Zip (Tatum). They seem awfully cozy…and then when they begin passionately kissing, Ronnie is so startled he falls into a patch of highly toxic plants, causing his face to break out in itchy hives and for him to have “challenging” urination.

Ronnie wrestles with how to tell his friend about what he saw, but after practicing on his sister (Morton) who then gets the impression he was talking about her husband (Van Swearingen) he then confronts Geneva with what he knows. However, not only does she refuse to tell her husband about what’s going on, she threatens to spill the beans on a secret the two of them have been keeping since before she met Nick. Ronnie then resolves to inform Nick one way or another without telling him directly – and merriment (theoretically) ensues.

This is a movie with a terrific pedigree – an Oscar-winning director, two of the funniest comic actors in the business and two of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood. It has all the ingredients for a very successful comedy. It just isn’t very funny.

The filmmakers rely mostly on gags that put poor Vince Vaughn through the wringer, from having him getting beaten up (numerous times) to falling into poisonous plants to having him get bitched out by Geneva. I’m all for pratfalls and physical comedy, but if that’s all you got, well even the Keystone Kops had subtlety sometimes.

I’ve always liked James and Vaughn and they have enough genuine charisma and chemistry to carry things through to a certain extent – it’s just that they don’t have anything funny to do. That can be deadly if you’re making a comedy.

Now it can be argued that Howard never intended to make a comedy and an argument can be made that this is actually a relationship drama. If that’s the case, why establish expectations for a comedy by casting Vaughn and James…and then market it as a romantic comedy? You simply set up a movie for failure that way.

That aside, there are some interesting insights on relationship dynamics, particularly when it comes to honesty within a relationship. It isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering or even mildly so, but at least it tries to shed some light on the subject and I give the movie points for that.

Still, much of the movie falls flat and the attempts of humor don’t work. I just felt that the movie didn’t connect with me and I more or less passed time rather than enjoying it. That’s not really a recommendation for a movie at all.

REASONS TO GO: Connelly and Ryder are both very pleasing to the eye. Some insight into moral dilemmas.

REASONS TO STAY: The really funny parts are few and far between and mostly seen on the trailer. Vaughn’s character is so wishy-washy you end up wishing he’d just blurt it out and get it over with.

FAMILY VALUES: The entire plot has to do with sex and infidelity, although it’s never addressed in an overt manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While practicing for the “Shoot the Puck” scene at the United Center, Kevin James actually shot the puck into the net. While he didn’t win a trip to the NHL All-Star game, the extras all cheered “Chelsea Dagger” in his honor.  

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Legion

How the Grinch Stole Christmas


How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey makes a point about Taylor Momsen’s hairstyle; it’s a bit too drab.

(2000) Holiday Fantasy (Universal) Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard, Mindy Sterling, Anthony Hopkins (voice). Directed by Ron Howard

Family movies, particularly those concerning the holidays, have become increasingly marketing-oriented, substituting toys and corporate tie-ins for good storytelling and meaningful lessons. It’s ironic that this live-action remake of a beloved animated classic that espouses the feeling behind Christmas over the commercialism that Christmas has become should be marketed so aggressively – with toys and corporate tie-ins.

Irony aside, most of us who aren’t named Ebeneezer Scrooge know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A mean-spirited, cold-hearted (that heart being two sizes too small) creature known as the Grinch (Carrey) sits in his mountain lair, dreading the coming of Christmas, a holiday loathed by the green-furred curmudgeon. Taking solace by playing mean-spirited pranks on his Christmas-obsessed neighbors down in Whoville (known as Whos, creatures with off-the-wall haircuts and upwardly mobile noses), the Grinch is eventually goaded into a dastardly scheme. He means to eradicate every vestige of Christmas from Whoville while the unsuspecting Whos slumber amid the splendors of pine and light.

With the reluctant help of his adorable mutt Max, the Grinch devises a Santa suit and a rather unlikely-looking sleigh to carry out his nefarious deed. Of course, we all know how it ends – so there’s no need to discuss that here.

Director Ron Howard goes deeper into the background story of the Grinch, exploring the reasons behind his hate affair with the Yuletide, and adds numerous subplots, turning tiny Cindy Lou Who (Momsen) into a central character, whose non-judgmental belief in the goodness of the Grinch proves to be the linchpin the story revolves around. Writer Jeffrey Price adds a love interest (Baranski), a pompous mayor (Tambor) and Cindy Lou’s simple but eventually steadfast dad (Irwin).

The onscreen Whoville appears just as the late Theodore Geisel drew it, only in greater detail. Methinks the film’s designers spent a lot of time examining Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure; the set bears a striking resemblance to the theme park. Much like Never-Never Land in “Hook,” Whoville and the Mount Crumpit Grinch Cave become pivotal to the movie’s success, becoming places that are real and that we want to visit. Whoville may not be the star of the show, but it’s certainly an important cast member.

In one of his most physically demanding roles, Carrey brings the Grinch to life and though he can’t resist the over-the-top mugging that keeps me from being a big fan of his work, I am nonetheless impressed with his commitment to the character. Young Momsen makes a charming Cindy Lou Who, and though it probably wasn’t a wise idea to let her sing, she at least is off-key with heart. Boris Karloff is no longer with us to narrate, but Hopkins is the best person for filling those shoes that we have today, Christopher Lee notwithstanding.

This is a family movie that is actually for the whole family. Young ‘uns will appreciate the simple story, the physical comedy and the wonderful eye candy. Adults (most of us who grew up with Dr. Seuss or reading it to someone who did) will find comfort in the nostalgia that is evoked, and delight in seeing Whoville brought to life.

Add “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to the list of timeless holiday classics that we’ll want to revisit again and again through the years. It’s a marvelous treat for the entire family or share with a date, or even just experience by yourself. Da Queen gave this one sentimental hankie, and for once, I think she underrated it.

WHY RENT THIS: The dazzling Whoville set brings Dr. Seuss to life. Certainly there are moments in the movie when the Christmas spirit really shows through.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey has a tendency to overdo it at times.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a little crude but otherwise this is a holiday classic fit for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Whoville set was built behind the Psycho house on the Universal lot in California. Sometimes during breaks in filming, Carrey would run out of the house while wearing a dress and brandishing a knife, startling the tourists taking the Backlot Tram Tour but nobody ever recognized him.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video of Faith Hill’s performance of “Where Are You Christmas” (the song Momsen sings, sorta, in the film) and some interesting featurettes on translating Dr. Seuss’ world to the screen as well as the instructions that went to the extras on how to be Whos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $345.1M on a $123M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes with the review of a Holiday Classic and a special Christmas story.

Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon

David Frost and Richard Nixon square off in their historic interview.

(Universal) Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard

It is said that the United States lost its innocence during the Watergate affair. That’s a bit simplistic – there has always been corruption and chicanery, even in the highest office, only not quite so public. When Nixon resigned, it was in the face of mounting evidence that he would be impeached for certain. Some of his detractors, however, howled, particularly when Ford pardoned him. It was as if we would never get any sort of admission of wrongdoing, or even acknowledgement that there had even been any. However, the closest we ever got to getting that satisfaction came from the most unlikely of sources.

David Frost (Sheen) was a British talk show host who had ambitions of greater success in America. His last show had failed and he needed something to put him back on the map. For Nixon’s (Langella) part, he was looking for nothing less than a comeback; a chance to redeem his tarnished reputation and restore his legacy. There were many clamoring for one-on-one interviews with the former president, three years after his resignation – three years spent in public silence. Every news anchor on every network was chomping at the bit to get Nixon in front of their cameras. However, Nixon – ever the crafty political fox – chose Frost, thinking he would have no problem controlling the interview and accomplishing exactly what he wanted to do.

Frost was well aware that he was in over his head and hired researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), both rabid anti-Nixonites, to do as much research on Watergate and the Nixon presidency as was possible in the limited time they had to prepare. In the meantime, Frost was having difficulty securing financing and the networks were screaming bloody murder and making accusations of “checkbook journalism.”

It was a minor miracle that the interview took place at all, but on March 23, 1977 Nixon and Frost sat down in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Smith of Monarch Bay, California and began to converse. The stakes were high for both men; if Nixon couldn’t outwit Frost and control the perception of the American people, he would go to his grave a disgraced man. If Frost was unable to gain that control over the interview, he would be responsible for the resurrection of Nixon’s public image and quite possibly, lose the only chance to get Nixon to speak on Watergate for all time.

These interviews were turned into a stage play which has in turn been adapted into a motion picture by populist director Ron Howard, who on the surface would seem to be the wrong man for this job – you would think someone along the lines of Oliver Stone or Robert Redford might be more suitable. Nevertheless, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted the work from his own play) have done a masterful work of making what is essentially a static situation (two guys sitting in chairs in a room) whose outcome is known seem suspenseful, tense and not the least bit stage-y.

The movie is well-served by its stars, who both appeared in the same roles in the stage play both in the West End and on Broadway. Langella, in particular, inhabits his role with some dignity, and justifiably received an Oscar nomination for it. He gives the disgraced president a human side, even charming at times but with hints of the ferocious game player that Nixon was, and at the same time horribly insecure about himself. Langella’s Nixon isn’t the boogie man the counterculture made him out to be; he was just ambitious to the point of self-destruction and even in his own way a good man who became a victim of his own hubris.

Sheen, who had just played Tony Blair to great acclaim in The Queen, gives another bravura performance which was in some ways more subtle than Langella, but no less spectacular. Frost is portrayed as a bit on the shallow side and quite charming in a rakish way, but also with his own insecurities; he was well-aware he was in over his head and managed to bring out the steel in his backbone only when it was really needed.

The interplay between Nixon and Frost was fascinating to watch here. They aren’t friends precisely, but both recognize a bit of the other in themselves. It allows a bit of a bond which the film’s ending seems to indicate went beyond the interviews. Although some liberties were taken with the facts (for example, the interviews took place three days a week for two hours a day for a total of 12 days of interviews over the space of a month; here, Nixon’s famous admission that his actions weren’t illegal because he was president takes place on the very last day of the interviews when in reality it took place on the fifth day.

That’s mere window dressing, however. It is the job of the filmmaker to maintain the essence of the events, not recreate them exactly note for note. Howard accomplishes that marvelously and while some have accused both him and Morgan for having been rather soft on President Nixon, it is by all accounts true that Nixon could be a charming, kindly-seeming man when the occasion called for it and was on friendly terms with David Frost until his death in 1994.

Nixon remains an enigma in modern history. We will never know why he chose to do the things he did, and what demons drove him to make those decisions. He will always be the first – and so far, only – President to resign from office and as Reston says in the voice-over, any political scandal from then to know will have the word “gate” attatched as a suffix. You may not get any insight into Nixon the man, but you will understand better the mystique that swirled around him in those difficult years.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the confrontation between two men, each with their insecurities and into the mind of the disgraced President. The performances of Sheen and Langella are as good as it gets.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes showing the preparation for the interviews go on too long and the movie lags a bit; it’s probably about 10 or 15 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is enough cursing that this movie got an “R” rating; quite frankly, it isn’t so blue that I would prevent the average teen from seeing this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on The Real Interviews in which the principle filmmakers as well as the playwright share their own experiences with interviews, and scenes from the actual interviews are shown to give you an idea how closely the recreation matches the original. There’s also an excellent featurette on the Nixon Library, illustrating the importance of presidential libraries overall. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is also a featurette that shows which of the locations were actually used for the original interviews, and Sir David Frost himself weighs in on his opinion of the play and the movie. The Blu-Ray edition comes with the U-Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture features that correspond to the appropriate places in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Devil

Angels and Demons


Angels & Demons

"What's the plot doing way over there?"

(Paramount) Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Victor Alfieri, Elya Basin, Rance Howard . Directed by Ron Howard.

Any institution that is around long enough is bound to acquire opponents, if not enemies. For the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest institution on the planet, those opponents are many. But, as they say, it only takes one.

The Church is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of the pope, considered a progressive and fair-minded pontiff, beloved by his flock. As the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new leader for their church, two very disturbing events occur. The first is the theft of a small but significant amount of anti-matter, a substance manufactured in an experiment partially funded by the Church. The second is the kidnapping of four respected cardinals, all of them considered favorites for the papal election, or as they are known more commonly in the Vatican as the preferati.

The powers of the pope are invested in Patrick McKenna (McGregor), the assistant to the previous pope (or Camerlengo as the position is titled), and he is given further reason for misgiving when he receives a cryptic but menacing note, as well as a live cam feed that indicates that the missing anti-matter is somewhere in the Vatican.

To help in the investigation, Inspector Olivetti (Favino) of the Vatican Police Force recruits an unlikely ally – Robert Langdon (Hanks), the Harvard professor of symbology whose investigations in The DaVinci Code brought down the Opus Dei group and caused much embarrassment for the Church. He arrives in the Vatican along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) who was working on the anti-matter project and whose father was gruesomely murdered during the theft. She reports that the battery-charged electronic cannister holding the anti-matter would eventually fail when the battery died; when it did, a sizable chunk of Rome would be vaporized.

Langdon determines that the note was written by the Illuminati, an ancient society of scientifically-inclined Catholics who underwent extreme persecution in the days of Galileo. Deciphering the note, he figures out that the plan is to execute the four cardinals, once every hour in four locations sacred to the Illuminati (each having to do with one of the four elements). Langdon must follow a variety of clues to discover where each cardinal is going to meet a grisly end and arrive there before said cardinals get an early opportunity to see God live and in Person.

He is opposed by Commander Richter (Skarsgaard), the head of the Swiss Guard who are kind of the secret service of the Vatican. To let you know how he feels about the situation, he growls in a voice dripping with disdain “What a relief, the symbologist is here” when Langdon arrives at the Vatican. Also conservative Cardinal Strauss (Mueller-Stahl) is suspicious of the openly non-religious Langdon.

This is a very slick-looking thriller that utilizes its Roman locations effectively (although the Vatican locations were all recreated on a set – as you might imagine, the Church refused to allow the filmmakers permission to film there). Howard is one of the best directors working today, and his skills are one of the movie’s outstanding features. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t give you time to think about all the implausibility in the script.

The script is one of the major downfalls of the film. Writers Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp – both of whom have delivered some really well-written scripts in the past – aren’t entirely to blame for this. Dan Brown, author of the novel, is a talented writer of page turners, but sacrifices a lot of common sense for the sake of a good plot turn. Are you telling me that the combined minds of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police Force, who guard some of the most important people and treasures in the world, were unable to turn the note upside down to figure out that it was sent by the Illuminati?

The script is also rather talky. Hanks spends a lot of time cogitating and then delivering a pronouncement like an explanation point “Why didn’t I think of it before? The Church of San Whoever, patron saint of Earth Wind and Fire!” It’s not that Hanks does a bad job – he’s quite believable inasmuch as he can be as an academic who isn’t fazed by being shot at and have any number of murder attempts made on him. In some ways he’s more of an action hero than scholar, but Hanks makes sure the scholarly side is well-represented.

The international cast (with actors from Israel, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, China, Russia, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere) are solid. McGregor just about steals the movie as the pious Camerlengo. I like him as an actor more and more in every role I see him as. Zurer is likewise solid in a role that literally has no reason to be there – she’s eye candy, nothing more but she at least makes a credible attempt at being at least physicist-like. Skarsgaard and Mueller-Stahl, veteran character actors both, lend gravitas to their roles.

I’ve really spent a lot of time dwelling on the movie’s faults, and that’s a bit unfair. Granted, they are glaring imperfections, but quite frankly this is a solid summer thriller with plenty of mindless entertainment. The trouble is it kind of bills itself as a smart thriller which is a bit of a disservice. This is the kind of movie that if you think too much about it you’re not going to like it as much. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a pretty good one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nonstop thrill ride that doesn’t pause long enough for you to catch your breath. McGregor is becoming a much more watchable actor than he was in the Star Wars prequels. Breathtaking sets, special effects (particularly one sequence in St. Peter’s Square) and use of Roman locations make this extremely watchable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is full of holes and lapses in logic that detract from the action. While it bills itself as an intellectual thriller, it works better as mindless entertainment. Some egregious factual errors, particularly as to historical context and Catholic  

FAMILY VALUES: Some rather spectacular and gruesome murders occur, some of which may be too intense for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While filming in Rome, the crew and equipment were blocking the passage of a bridal party on the way to a church for their wedding. Upon hearing about the situation, Tom Hanks personally escorted the party through the filming area and prevailed upon crew to move equipment so that the party might pass. The grateful family of the bride invited Hanks and director Howard to stay for the reception but their busy filming schedule prevented it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a feature on CERN, home of the large hadron collider and the world’s largest particle physics factory. The crew were permitted to film on the premesis (although not in sensitive areas) and the achievements of CERN are discussed in some detail.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Soloist